Charting a New Course
Investigating Barriers on the Calculus Pathway to STEM
College Calculus serves as a cornerstone to a degree in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). At the same time, Calculus courses and requirements can function as barriers to STEM majors and careers, with significant proportions of students leaving a STEM path after taking Calculus. This pattern is most pronounced among Black and Latinx students and others who are historically underrepresented in college.
To explore the reasons students leave Calculus sequences and STEM majors, and shed light on strategies for addressing those barriers, the California Education Learning Lab partnered with Just Equations to synthesize existing research and knowledge from California and beyond.
This report was commissioned in conjunction with a new funding opportunity, Seeding Strategies to Close the Calculus Equity Gap. The intention in disseminating this report is to inform those efforts and others around the state to strengthen undergraduate Calculus pathways and ensure that they enhance access to STEM majors and careers, particularly for populations that have traditionally been excluded from STEM.
Excerpts from Part 1
“With the possible exception of Introductory Chemistry, courses in Calculus bear more responsibility than any other subject for undergraduates leaving the STEM path (Weston et al., 2019).” — Page 1 of the report
“Though the demographics of Calculus students and their reasons for taking the course have changed dramatically in the past 50-plus years, the course itself has seen little change (Teague, 2017). Likewise, the meritocratic narrative common to STEM and Calculus has been decades in the making. Updating it for a more equitable future will require dedicated resources and leadership to redesign practices that leave far too many capable students behind.” — Page 19 of the report
“…'[M]ost college Calculus I classes in the United States contain students who are completely new to the terminology and concepts of calculus and students who have already demonstrated proficiency in all of the topics to be covered in that course,” notes Bressoud (2021, p. 521). Because of racially disparate access to Calculus in high school, minoritized students, particularly Black students, are most likely to be at a disadvantage because they are encountering Calculus for the first time (Tough, 2021), all the more so when A’s and B’s are rationed.” — Page 8 of the report
“What successful efforts also have in common is that they center changes around supporting students and understanding their contexts, to ensure that their prior math preparation doesn’t dictate their destinies.” — Page 19 of the report
Excerpts from Part 2
“With the nation’s largest and most diverse systems of higher education, California will be central to efforts to ensure that Calculus serves as an on-ramp to STEM success for a broader population. The state produces nearly one-eighth of the nation’s STEM degrees.” — Page 20 of the report
“In terms of access to Calculus, University of California students were almost three times as likely to enroll in Calculus in Fall 2019 as were California State University students, a probable reflection of the UC system’s more selective admissions requirements and emphasis on STEM disciplines. UC admits predominantly come from the top one-eighth of high school graduates statewide, with nearly two-thirds of them having taken at least one AP math course (i.e., AP Calculus AB, AP Calculus BC, and/or AP Statistics) in high school, as compared with just over 40 percent of CSU admits (Asim et al., 2019, p.14, Figure 10).” — Page 20 of the report
“Community college students were proportionally less likely to enroll in Calculus than undergraduates in the university systems, a likely reflection of the community colleges’ multiple missions…. Still, by virtue of the CCC’s large enrollment (more than 1.5 million students), more of their students (21,934) took Calculus in Fall 2019 than at the other two systems combined (18,231).” — Page 20 of the report
“What is consistent across both university systems is that fewer of the Black and Latinx students who took Calculus did so in their first year than did White and Asian students, again an indication that prior math preparation affects students’ momentum. As discussed on page 8, delayed enrollment in Calculus can reduce students’ persistence and progress into a STEM degree.” — Page 21 of the report
“The system data also revealed gender disparities in Calculus enrollment, particularly at the CSU, where the Calculus course–taking rate of males was 2.5 times that of females: only 10 out of every 1,000 females enrolled in Fall 2019 took Calculus that term, compared with 25 out of every 1,000 males. As a result, despite making up 56 percent of the student body, females accounted for just 35 percent of CSU students enrolled in Calculus in Fall 2019 (which is, however, close to the 38 percent of that fall’s STEM majors who were female). Community colleges displayed a similar pattern: Females constituted 53 percent of students and 36 percent of Calculus takers. The gender gap was smallest at UC, where females made up 54 percent of the student body and 44 percent of Calculus enrollees.” — Page 21 of the report
“Disparities in completion by income at the universities were even more pronounced, with lower-income students less likely to succeed in Calculus: At both systems, the DFW rates of students with Pell Grants were double or nearly double that of non-Pell students…. At the CCC, though DFW rates were higher, they were notably less varied by income….” — Page 22 of the report
About the Authors
Pamela Burdman, a policy analyst and strategist on equitable college access, readiness, and success, is the founder and Executive Director of Just Equations, a policy institute focused on reconceptualizing the role of mathematics in education equity. She began her career as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and first focused on math equity issues as a program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, working with the early developers of new college statistics pathways. She is the author of numerous reports and articles on math opportunity that have influenced policy changes in K–12 and postsecondary math education in California and beyond. She earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and East Asian studies from Princeton University and a master’s in business administration and master’s in Asian studies from UC Berkeley.
Melodie Baker is the National Policy Director at Just Equations, where she works to advance the role of math education in promoting equity through national partnerships and policy initiatives. A nationally recognized education leader and advocate, Baker has devoted her career to expanding opportunities for students. She has chaired various national and statewide initiatives, including the Coalition for Community Schools and Raising New York, and was recently tapped to serve on New York’s Reimagining Education Advisory Council to devise strategies for reopening schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to joining Just Equations in 2020, she was director of education for the United Way in Buffalo, New York. Baker earned her bachelor’s degree in public relations from Buffalo State College, a master’s in executive leadership and change from Daemen College, and is finishing a doctorate in educational psychology and quantitative methods at SUNY Buffalo.
Francesca Henderson, Just Equations’ Math Educator in Residence, serves as in-house math education expert as well as liaison to the larger mathematical community. She is a career educator with a range of experiences and a passion for social justice and equity. She has worked as a researcher, high school math teacher, vice principal, curriculum designer, and education consultant. Her current research focuses on the transition from high school to college, and the role of mathematics in supporting or hindering the college-going process. Henderson received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from San Diego State University and a master’s in education from High Tech High Graduate School of Education, where she also teaches graduate students about positive school cultures and equitable discipline practices. She is pursuing a doctorate in mathematics education at the University of Maryland.
Funding from the State of California to the California Education Learning Lab and funding from the College Futures Foundation, The James Irvine Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to Just Equations supported the development of this report. Learning Lab and Just Equations would like to thank the following people for their contributions to this report:
Provision of system-level data and analyses to inform this study
- Pamela Brown, University of California, Office of the President
- Tanya Figueroa, California State University Chancellor’s Office*
- Chris Furgiuele, University of California, Office of the President
- John Hetts, California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office
- Valerie Lundy-Wagner, California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office
- Ed Sullivan, California State University Chancellor’s Office
*Tanya Figueroa is now a senior research associate with WestEd
Analysis of community college data
- Anna Doherty, California Policy Lab at UC Berkeley
- Stacy Fisher, Foundation for California Community Colleges
Math education experts interviewed
- David Bressoud, Ph.D., Macalester College
- Christopher W. Curtis, Ph.D., San Diego State University
- Concha Gomez Ph.D., Diablo Valley College
- Jess Ellis Hagman, Ph.D., Colorado State University
- Brit Kirwan, Ph.D., University System of Maryland
- Sophia Lee, Ed.D., Citrus College
- Luis Antonio Leyva, Ph.D., Vanderbilt University
- Michael E. O’Sullivan, Ph.D., San Diego State University
- Susan Rinaldi, M.A., UC San Diego
- Pat Thompson, Ed.D., Arizona State University
- Anthony Tromba, Ph.D., UC Santa Cruz
- Charity Watson, Ph.D., Florida International University
- David Webb, Ph.D., University of Colorado Boulder
- Kendrick Davis, University of Southern California
- John Eggers, UC San Diego
- Jess Ellis Hagman, Colorado State University
- Michael Kirst, Stanford University (emeritus)
- Saburo Matsumoto, College of the Canyons
- Chris Rasmussen, San Diego State University
About Learning Lab
The California Education Learning Lab is a state-funded grantmaking organization charged with improving learning outcomes and closing equity gaps across California’s public higher education segments. An initiative of the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research administered in partnership with the Foundation for California Community Colleges, Learning Lab supports innovation in higher education pedagogy through intersegmental grants to California’s public colleges and universities. Funded projects leverage technology tools and the science of human learning to create better online and hybrid learning environments, and empower faculty to find pedagogical solutions that work best for California’s diverse student population.
About Just Equations
Just Equations is a California-based policy institute whose mission is to reconceptualize the role of mathematics in ensuring educational equity. An independent resource on math-related policies in the transition from high school to and through college, Just Equations advances evidence-based strategies to ensure that all students have the quantitative foundation they need to succeed in college and beyond.[Suggested Citation: Burdman, P., Baker, M., & Henderson, F. (2021). Charting a new course: Investigating barriers on the calculus pathway to STEM. California Education Learning Lab.]
Written by Just Equations, the report is based on a synthesis of roughly 200 sources (including books, book chapters, journal articles, research reports, and other online and print sources) and interviews with 13 experts inside and outside of California. (See report or Acknowledgments section for full list of interviewees.)
Explore Learning Lab Funded Projects
Focus on Math
There are currently 13 funded projects focused on closing equity gaps in mathematics (and 1 on statistics), ranging in approach from focusing on real-world tasks and utilizing real-time data to make connections to future STEM careers, to developing a revamped biocalculus curriculum. Click the button below to view projects.